- On April 5, 2012 Human Rights Watch (HRW) published “Palestinians Cut Off From Farmlands” to mark the first anniversary of the Israeli Supreme Court decision (HCJ 9961/03), rejecting a petition filed by two NGOs – Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual. The case focused on the legality of Israel’s permit system for entering “Seam Zones” – areas of the West Bank between the 1949 armistice lines (the “Green Line”) and the Security Fence.
- In contrast to HRW’s allegations that Israel “treats all Palestinians living or seeking to access farmlands in these areas as though they were security threats,” the court found that the regulations were the “unavoidable by-product of actions taken by the state to protect the lives of its residents – in the territories and in Israel – from Palestinian terror groups.”
- HRW stated categorically without substantive argument, that the permit system “violates the requirement under international law that security measures must be narrowly tailored to the threat that they aim to meet,” simply ignoring the court’s lengthy legal analysis.
- HRW does not disclose what expertise, if any, was used to assess Israel’s security needs, or how HRW is more qualified than the IDF and the Supreme Court to make such an evaluation.
- HRW obscures that Israel issues tens of thousands of permits annually (17,000 in the first half of 2009, 29,000 in 2008 and 30,000 in 2007) and instead, falsely accuses Israel of preventing Palestinian farmers from working their land.
- HRW also levels false charges of racial discrimination on the grounds that Israeli citizens do not require permits to access the Seam Zones. However, there is no legal basis to require that Israeli citizens, who are obviously free to travel in all of Israel, acquire permits to enter their own country.
On April 5, 2012 Human Rights Watch (HRW) published “Palestinians Cut Off From Farmlands” to mark the first anniversary of the Israeli Supreme Court decision (HCJ 9961/03), rejecting a petition filed by two NGOs – Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual. The case focused on the legality of Israel’s permit system for entering “Seam Zones” – areas of the West Bank between the 1949 armistice lines and the Security Fence.
The following is a detailed analysis of HRW’s claims as published. These claims are indicative of an on-going pattern of faulty methodological practices, where HRW will take a few anecdotal examples largely based on unverified individual “testimonies” from which it then makes generalized and broad-based assertions of rights violations.1
All quotes are from HRW or from the Supreme Court decision of April 5, 2011 (translations by NGO Monitor), unless stated otherwise.
1. HRW Claim: The Military Permit System “treats all Palestinians living in or seeking to access farmlands in these areas as though they were security threats, and imposes unnecessarily severe restrictions on their access, harming their livelihoods.”
Response: The security barrier was constructed in response to a prolonged and brutal suicide bombing campaign by Palestinians groups against Israeli civilians. The Supreme Court has reviewed hundreds of cases addressing the route and impact of the barrier, balancing the need to minimize restrictions on Palestinians with protecting Israeli civilians. And in this case, the Court’s decision again specifically considers this issue: “It is true that closing the Seam Zones hurts the entire Palestinian population, even if most of its residents are not involved in terror. However, this result is an unavoidable by-product of actions taken by the state to protect the lives of its residents – in the territories and in Israel – from Palestinian terror groups.” (Paragraph 45) This central point was omitted from HRW’s statement.
2. HRW Claim: “Such a system violates the requirement under international law that security measures must be narrowly tailored to the threat that they aim to meet.”
Response: In considering the legality of the permit system, the decision examined in depth alternative methods to minimize harm to Palestinian rights. The judges concluded that “The petitioners did not manage to show that given that we are discussing a closed military area, that necessitates a personal examination prior to issuing a permit to enter it, you can apply an alternative arrangement which would injure the rights of the Palestinian residents less.” (Paragraph 31)
It should also be noted, that during the case, the NGOs claimed that Israel’s security needs could be met if Palestinians entering the Seam Zone were merely checked for weapons (Paragraph 31). However, this approach would allow unarmed terrorists to enter the Seam Zone – and thereafter they would have no physical barrier preventing them from entering the rest of Israel. In stating categorically that the permit system “violates the requirement under International law,” HRW is ignoring the court’s detailed weighing of the matter, without providing any substantive counter-argument.
3. HRW Claim: “But despite evidence that the permit regime was unnecessarily restrictive and harmful, including the existence of alternatives that would meet Israel’s security needs, the court failed to address adequately the petitioners’ arguments that the system amounted to unjustified discrimination, saying only that it was ‘far from concluding that the distinction in the implementation of the policy in the Seam Zone is based on wrongful elements of religion and nationality’ rather than security reasons.”
Response: Contrary to HRW’s claims, the court went into great lengths to analyze the NGO arguments. Five pages (pg 12-17) legally analyze the security basis of the barrier and the Seam Zones, explicitly rejecting that the barrier was created for any purpose other than security concerns. Additionally, the same arguments were cited in many other court cases, and were referenced in this decision.
In claiming the existence of alternatives to Israel’s security needs, HRW does not provide any such practical alternatives, nor state what expertise, if any, the group used to assess Israel’s security needs, or how HRW is more qualified than the IDF and the Supreme Court to make such an evaluation.
4. HRW Claim: “However, Israel uses a different, less restrictive system to grant permits to Palestinians who work in Israeli settlements, often as construction workers.”
Response: Palestinians working in the supervised framework and closed geographic areas of settlements are clearly less of a security concern than those who can enter all of Israel freely once inside the Seam Zone. As such, it is wholly logical that the criteria for permits should be stricter for entry into the Seam Zones.
5. HRW Claim: “Israeli citizens, including settlers, and non-Israeli nationals visiting Israel, are exempt from the requirement to obtain military permits.”
Response: The Security Barrier was built in response to a series of violent Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians. In addition, HRW provides no legal basis as to why Israel would require a military permit for its citizens to enter their own country, nor do they provide a legal basis as to why non-citizen, non-resident Palestinians should have unfettered access to enter and travel freely throughout all of Israel. As in its other documents promoting the canard of Israeli racism, HRW’s claim of discrimination is entirely without foundation.
6. HRW Claim: “In practice, Israel has rarely allowed Palestinians to access their farmlands on the other side of the barrier, and then only for brief periods on days chosen by the Israeli military regardless of weather conditions or agricultural needs.”
Response: This assertion is a blatantly false and without foundation. According to the data submitted by the state (Paragraph 21), and quoted by the Court in its decision, Israel issued over 17,000 permits in the first half of 2009. In 2008, Israel issued 29,000 and in 2007, 30,000 permits. These figures are in addition to permits issued to Palestinians living in the Seam Zones, who have permanent permits (paragraph 26).
Additionally, the figures submitted by the state (Paragraph 21) show that the approval rating for requests has remained constant at roughly 70%, which also belies HRW’s claim that access is “rarely allowed.”
7. HRW Claim: “In November 2010, Israel granted 70 permits, which were valid for three weeks, to the farmers. After the permits expired, the 70 permit holders reapplied, but in March 2011 the military approved only 15 applications, according to the village council. The gate also controls access to about one-third of the farmland of another village, Beit Surik, directly affecting around 200 people, according to the village council.”
Response: These claims represent figures only for the village of Beit Surik. As the court noted, in the first half of 2009 there were over 17,000 permits issued. The only reference for HRW’s claim is the “village council.” HRW does not provide corresponding data from other sources, such as the IDF.
In addition HRW ignores the court’s comment that it could not offer relief for individual cases, because the petitioners had made a general case, and had not offered any specific examples.
- For more information on this issue, see NGO Monitor’s Best Practices for Human Rights and Humanitarian NGO Fact-Finding (Gerald Steinberg, Anne Herzberg, and Jordan Berman, Nijhoff, 2012) and Precision Guided or Indiscriminate? NGO Reporting on Compliance with the Laws of Armed Conflict (Asher Fredman, NGO Monitor and Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, June 2010).